Texas Theater

Ellen Beasley

 

Ellen Beasley has been researching the Texas Theater as part of the Waxahachie Architecture Guidebook project

for which the Ellis County Museum  is the sponsoring institution.

 

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It takes little coaxing to get people who grew up in Waxahachie to tell their "Texas" story—that is, to talk about the Texas Theater which is one of those community landmarks that has a special meaning for local residents.

What has been missing from the Texas story, however, is a framework, a timeline, of important dates and events in the early history of the building and the theater. In the process of pinpointing at least some of those dates, such as when the theater opened as "the Texas Theater" and when the building acquired its "modernistic" front, other information surfaced (mostly from newspapers on microfilm) about the Texas and its predecessors. Beginning in 1907, Waxahachie had numerous moving picture houses but the emphasis here is the Texas Theater and its location on the north side of the Courthouse Square.

 

December 20, 1893: The history of the Texas Theater begins when fire destroys the block to the north of the Courthouse. By late July 1894, the entire block has been rebuilt with a row of two-story brick buildings, all with retail businesses on the first floor and offices on the second, a pattern that remains unchanged until early 1907 when Frances Moffett Simpson inherits Lot 2.

February 7, 1907: The Waxahachie Daily Light reports that the Simpson Building is acquiring new tenants. A new men’s social club, to be named the Adelphian Club, has leased the full second floor for two years. First floor commercial spaces will be occupied by L.C. Smiley & Co.’s gentlemen’s clothing store on one side and by the Edison Entertainment Co. showing "high class moving pictures" in its Theatorium on the other.

February 15, 1907: The Theatorium opens. It is the first evidence of both an entertainment venue at this location and a Waxahachie business devoted entirely to showing "moving pictures." Prior to this time, the Shelton Opera House on South College offered an occasional moving picture program but its primary focus was, and remained until its closing in 1912, vaudeville, plays, and other live entertainment.

April 13, 1907: The Empire Amusement Co. opens a second moving picture theater, the Empire, in leased space on the south side of the square. For five cents, patrons can watch continuous showings from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at both the Empire and the Theatorium.

 

Waxahachie Daily Light, July 18, 1907

 

The brick 1894 Simpson Building housed Waxahachie's earliest moving picture theaters, beginning with the

the Theatorium in 1907, followed by the Majestic in 1909 and the Dixie in 1912. Photograph circa 1915.

 

 

January 18, 1909: The Majestic Theatre opens in the "full first floor" of the Simpson Building with "about 400 seats" and offers both moving pictures and vaudeville. The Theatorium moves to the west side of the square and reopens for a short run as the Lyric Theatre. Waxahachie now has three moving picture establishments on the Courthouse Square. The Lyric charges five cents admission, the Majestic and the Empire, ten cents.

 

 

 

Waxahachie Daily Light, November 15, 1911

Late July 1912: The Majestic is back to charging five cents for admission (competition is stiff) when it closes for a week so the new manager, the Dixie Amusement Company, can make improvements. The theater reopens on July 31 with a new name, the Dixie Theatre, and a ten-cent admission for adults but it was "a 10 cent House which gives you your money’s worth," thanks to the most up-to-date machine that shows pictures "steady as a rock" and a $2000 Wurlitzer electric orchestra, "an entertainment in itself." Pictures change daily and run continuously from 2:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.

1913 Waxahachie City Directory: Three "moving picture" houses are listed. The Dixie and the Empire theaters are on the square with seating capacities of 200 and 150, respectively. The 150-seat Freedman Theatre is located on East Main Street in the African American commercial district.

March 24, 1915: The Waxahachie Amusement Company is incorporated by owners P.Q. Rockett and Ed Gentsch of Waxahachie and Joe Davenport, Sr. of Poolville. With offices in the Simpson Building, the company manages the theaters on the square.

May 20, 1925: The estate of Waxahachie druggist L.C. Curlin buys the Simpson Building which, by this time, has been transformed on the interior into a two-story theater with a balcony.

September 1927: The Curlin executors, primarily widow Margaret Cecile Curlin, lease management of the Dixie, not to the local company, but to Harold B. Robb and Ed H. Rowley whose Dallas-based corporation becomes one of the largest developers and managers of theater properties in the Texas/Oklahoma region. The corporation also leases the Empire Theatre on the west end of the south side of the square in a building owned by Mrs. Pauline Graber.

The R & R Development Co. immediately makes "improvements that stamp the two theaters as show houses of [the] big city type." The R & R Dixie and the R & R Empire reopen featuring first-run and Western movies, respectively. Although the interior of the north-side theater building has been radically changed since 1907, the 1894 brick façade survives. The greatest changes to the building will be made in fall 1934—in the middle of the Depression.

 

Waxahachie Daily Light, May 22, 1925

 

 

On November 23, 1934, the Ritz Theatre opened in a rebuilt structure on the same site

as the Simpson Building. This picture, showing the Ritz sign and "modernistic" facade,

appeared in a Daily Light advertisement on November 5, 1936.

 

September 19, 1934: The Dixie closes "to be transformed into a new theater" with all the building but the walls torn down and rebuilt.

November 23, 1934: The Ritz opens with its "magnificent edifice." Formerly of brick, the Daily Light reports that the new front, "modernistic in design," is now white stucco with green and orange trim, a silver and black marquee, and neon lights. On the interior, "ornate and bizarre designs" in an Egyptian motif decorate the ceilings and walls with carpets and lighting in red. (Waxahachie now has a small-town version of a big-city movie palace.) The most noticeable change for many patrons is that the screen has been moved from the front to the back of the building as screens are placed today. Adult admission at night is 30 cents for the lower floor and 25 cents for the balcony, and 25 cents for all matinee seats. Children are 10 cents at any time.

December 3, 1938: A fire starting in the balcony guts the theater and also causes considerable damage to the adjoining Penn Building. Local firemen are handicapped because they lack a hook and ladder truck and are forced to call the Ennis volunteer fire department for its equipment.

At the time of the fire, Mrs. Curlin is already in the process of adapting another building she has bought on the southwest corner of College and Franklin for lease to Robb & Rowley United, Inc., as a third movie theater on the square. (Owning and leasing a building for use as a moving picture house was a lucrative investment.) To design and build both projects, Mrs. Curlin hires Houston & Smith, a Dallas architectural firm that specializes in theater design, and Waxahachie contractor O.B. Bennett.

March 31, 1939: The rebuilt Ritz opens as the Texas Theater, "one of the finest small-city theaters in the state" that adds greatly, according to the Daily Light, "to the attractiveness of the downtown district." The new theater beams "a huge red neon gas sign and blue backgrounds" on a gleaming white building, in contrast to "the soft and cool interior decoration." The latest in lighting, projection, screen, and air conditioning are among its features as are the new "Texas" model theater chairs produced by the American Seating Company. The opening show is Jesse James, a "20th Century-Fox Technicolor epic," starring Tyronne Power in the title role.

The Ritz is moved to Mrs. Curlin’s refurbished building on the south side of the square, which is where most Waxahachians remember it.

 

 

February 15, 1942: The Texas Theater building is once again "fire-wrecked," this time by a fire that starts in the heating system shortly after the Men’s Downtown Bible Class concluded their regular Sunday morning meeting in the building. Re-using the Houston & Smith 1938-39 architectural plans and rehiring contractor O.B. Bennett, Mrs. Curlin rebuilds the structure for Robb and Rowley.

 

 

May 1, 1942: The "new Texas Theater" opens, "further establishing Waxahachie as the cinema entertainment center of this section." The Daily Light notes that the rebuilding project used no materials "critically needed" for the war effort. Improvements in equipment and patron conveniences include 551 "new and more comfortable seats," some with hearing-aid connections. The opening show features Henry Fonda "who is nuts" for larcenist Gene Tierney in Rings on her Fingers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Texas Theater originally opened March 31, 1939, following a fire in the Ritz. After another major fire in early

1942, the reopening of the Texas was promoted in this advertisement in the Daily Light on April 30, 1942.

 

 

In the 35 years from February 1907 to May 1942, Waxahachie witnessed a huge leap from the store-front Theatorium to the "new Texas Theater." Of course, the story does not end in 1942, but there are plenty of Waxahachians who can help fill in the gaps. Although always a highly visible presence on the Courthouse Square, the Texas, with time, has also acquired major historic importance. In fact, another important date should be added to the timeline.

May 2009: Purchased by the City of Waxahachie with Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds and managed under contract by Main Street Productions, Tim Eaton manager, the new "new Texas Theater" opens.

 

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